Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Why does the Church have a "shorter" and longer version for some of the Sunday Gospels? There appears to be no rationale; the time factor is hardly an issue. It seems more that there is a politically correct motive: for example, in the Gospel of Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014, Anna's part can be cut off [possibly to] avoid offending Israel? Also, in the Gospel of Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014, parts mentioning keeping the least of the commandments, calling your brother a "fool" (metaphorically), tearing out your eye if it offends you, and the mention of divorce are all optional -- perhaps not to increase guilt; suggest violence; avoid the messy question of divorce? Please explain, as this optional chopping of the Gospel can be uncomfortable. -- S.F., Perrysburg, Ohio
A: I think we can exclude so-called politically correct motivations and take as sincere what has been written by those who composed the current lectionary in the introduction.
As regards the length of the texts they explain their rationale:
"75. A middle way is followed in regard to the length of texts. A distinction has been made between narratives, which require reading a fairly long passage but which usually hold the attention of the faithful, and texts that should not be lengthy because of the profundity of their doctrine.
"In the case of certain rather lengthy texts, longer and shorter versions are provided to suit different situations. The editing of the shorter version has been carried out with great caution.
"3) Difficult Texts
"76. In readings for Sundays and solemnities, texts that present real difficulties are avoided for pastoral reasons. The difficulties may be objective, in that the texts themselves raise profound literary, critical, or exegetical problems; or the difficulties may lie, at least to a certain extent, in the ability of the faithful to understand the texts. But there could be no justification for concealing from the faithful the spiritual riches of certain texts on the grounds of difficulty if the problem arises from the inadequacy either of the religious education that every Christian should have or of the biblical formation that every pastor of souls should have. Often a difficult reading is clarified by its correlation with another in the same Mass.
"4) The Omission of Certain Verses
"77. The omission of verses in readings from Scripture has at times been the tradition of many liturgies, including the Roman liturgy. Admittedly such omissions may not be made lightly, for fear of distorting the meaning of the text or the intent and style of Scripture. Yet on pastoral grounds it was decided to continue the traditional practice in the present Order of Readings, but at the same time to ensure that the essential meaning of the text remained intact. One reason for the decision is that otherwise some texts would have been unduly long. It would also have been necessary to omit completely certain readings of high spiritual value for the faithful because those readings include some verse that is pastorally less useful or that involves truly difficult questions.
"3. Principles to Be Followed in the Use of the Order of Readings
"a) THE FREEDOM OF CHOICE REGARDING SOME TEXTS
"2) The Longer and Shorter Forms of Texts
"80. A pastoral criterion must also guide the choice between the longer and shorter forms of the same text. The main consideration must be the capacity of the hearers to listen profitably either to the longer or to the shorter reading; or to listen to a more complete text that will be explained through the homily.
"3) When Two Texts Are Provided
"81. When a choice is allowed between alternative texts, whether they are fixed or optional, the first consideration must be the best interest of those taking part. It may be a matter of using the easier texts or the one more relevant to the assembled congregation or, as pastoral advantage may suggest, of repeating or replacing a text that is assigned as proper to one celebration and optional to another.
"The issue may arise when it is feared that some text will create difficulties for a particular congregation or when the same text would have to be repeated within a few days, as on a Sunday and on a day during the week following."
Therefore, I believe that the motivation is clear and involves above all a question of maintaining a similar length from one Sunday to the next and helping to maintain attention. The wisdom of particular choices may be debated and eventually reformed, but the overall focus of the readings provides solid doctrine.
I think we can leave out consideration of political correctness. The texts of the current lectionary were fixed in the late 1960s and cannot thus be interpreted in the light of issues which came to prominence at later stages. As the introduction admits, some problematic texts were avoided, but due to interpretative difficulties in the context of the homily and not so as to avoid giving offense.
If this were the case, then many other texts would have to be excised from the lectionary on days when there is no shorter or longer option.
Likewise, even when a shorter version exists, the general norm for printers of booklets is to always print both forms. Therefore, no priest is ever constrained to use the shorter version and may preach upon the longer text if he so chooses.
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